ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When you hear the words black market or street value, what kind of contraband comes to mind? Drugs, guns? How about tubas? That's right. In Los Angeles, authorities say the instruments are in such hot demand, they are disappearing from schools across the county. Krissy Clark of member station KQED has our story.
KRISSY CLARK, BYLINE: I'm at the scene of a recent tuba crime. The Southgate High School music room, where Ruben Gonzalez, aka Mr. G, is starting his after-lunch band class with a request only a bandleader would make.
RUBEN GONZALEZ: Hey, folks. Make sure we rinse out, folks. We don't need any hamburgers or hot chilies coming through those instruments. Make sure we rinse out.
CLARK: While the kids rinse out and tune up, Mr. G shows me a row of gashes along the doorjamb. He and his students noticed them one morning earlier this school year.
GONZALEZ: I'm walking out and I'm like, that was never there before and I'm like, you know what, guys? I think someone tried to break in.
CLARK: He was right. And then he noticed something else. Once the thieves got in, they bypassed a computer, as well as a stash of valuable flutes, saxophones and clarinets.
GONZALEZ: All they took were the tubas.
CLARK: It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, but security cameras confirmed it: grainy footage of three guys in hoodies, under cover of night, lugging away two concert tubas and a sousaphone on wheels. A couple months later, thieves broke into Mr. G's classroom again, steeling two more. And that is just the tip of the tuba theft iceberg.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A major blow for two local schools. Thieves made off with tubas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The crimes match a series of burglaries at schools across Southern California.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The latest high school to be hit by thieves who were after one thing.
CLARK: So far, at least 23 tubas have been stolen from eight different high schools in and around L.A. in less than a year. Given public school budgets these days, not something these campuses can afford.
And what exactly is happening to all these stolen tubas? There are competing theories. Maybe they're being sold for scrap metal, but more likely, according to police...
OMAR SANCHEZ: Banda.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CLARK: Officer Omar Sanchez is with the Los Angeles School Police. Banda is a sort of tuba-heavy Mexican polka music that he says has become so popular around L.A., an underground economy has sprung up.
SANCHEZ: If I just say, hey, I got a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend who has a tuba, you can easily sell it from word of mouth. I mean, in the black market, it's big money. It's just very popular music around here and any Latino culture area. Me being a fan, I can understand, a big tuba aficionado.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign Language Spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CLARK: At a Mexican restaurant in South L.A., a group called La Banda Rebelde is playing at a makeshift stage in the parking lot. People are swarming just to hear the tuba.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Once you put the tuba in there, it's, like - it makes the whole song different.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It brings it, kind of, to life, you know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It just gets people more pumped up.
CLARK: The band here charges $20 a song, almost twice as much as a group without a tuba. People have been known to stuff hundred dollar bills down the tuba's bell.
GONZALEZ: All right, guys. Let's go ahead and play it in E. E, as in eyeball.
CLARK: Back at South Gate High School, that kind of cash could go a long way. At $7,000 a pop, the band teacher, Mr. G, says it's going to cost more than $35,000 to replace all the band's stolen tubas. In the meantime, they're relying on a 40 year old sousaphone named Bertha.
GONZALEZ: We've retired her a couple times, but we brought her back because, obviously, now we have no tuba, so she's back in action.
CLARK: They hope to raise enough money to have new tubas in time for band camp this summer. For NPR News, I'm Krissy Clark in Los Angeles.
GONZALEZ: All right. From the beginning, tuba. Ready? And...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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